What Is the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation that addressed the prejudice occurring in society in the U.S. at the time. Through its 11 titles, it banned discrimination and segregation based on race, religion, natural origin, and sex in employment and in all public places, such as schools, hotels, restaurants, churches, and hospitals.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also led to other civil rights laws over subsequent years.
How did it come about? By the early 1960s, the civil rights movement had brought national attention to racial barriers in education, public transportation, and use of public accommodations, such as restaurants and theaters.
In the wake of harsh treatment of peaceful protestors by the police and the murders of civil rights activists, President John F. Kennedy called for a meaningful civil rights bill in 1963.
His efforts were filibustered in the Senate. After Kennedy's assassination that year, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, took up the cause. With the support of activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the bill passed in the House and Senate in 1964.
In the decades since the law's passage, prohibitions against discrimination have been expanded. Here's what the 1964 law includes, as well as a look at subsequent civil rights legislation.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
- It addressed voting rights, employment, public accommodations, education, and more.
- A series of laws in the 1960s and 1970s clarified and expanded the discrimination ban to include age and disability discrimination.
- They also applied it to housing and voting rights.
- The effectiveness of the agencies involved in civil rights enforcement has varied with the commitment of various government administrations.
Understanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is widely considered one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement. This historic federal legislation prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
The law applied to public schools, government agencies, employers, private institutions that received federal funds, and more. Sections of the law, called titles, addressed equal access in various sectors of society.
Title I: Discriminatory Voting Tactics
Title I prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, such as literacy tests.
Title II: Desegregation of Public Accommodations
Title II outlawed discrimination based on color, race, religion, or national origin in restaurants, theaters, hotels, and motels, as well as all other public accommodations involved in interstate commerce. Private clubs are exempt.
Title III: Desegregation of Public Property
Title III prohibited state and local governments from denying access to public property and facilities based on color, race, religion, or national origin. It involved federal enforcement of equal protection that was guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Title IV: Desegregation of Public Schools and Colleges
Title IV provided the basis for the desegregation of public schools and colleges using the equal protection guarantees under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Title V: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Title V provided for the expansion of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that was established by the earlier Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Title VI: Discrimination by Recipients of Federal Financial Assistance
Title VI prohibited discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance and authorized government agencies that disburse the funds to investigate and terminate or withhold such funding based on their findings.
Title VII: Discrimination in Employment
Title VII—one of the most far-reaching sections of the act—addressed equal employment opportunities by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by federal government employers or private sector employers with 15 or more employees. It also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Title VIII: Voting Statistics
This title instructed the Secretary of Commerce to "conduct a survey of registration and voting statistics capturing data relating to race, color, and natural origin."
Titles IX-X-XI: Enforcement
Title IX facilitated the movement of civil rights cases from state courts to federal courts. Title X created the Community Relations Service that would assist in disputes involving discrimination claims. Among other things, Title XI afforded defendants accused of criminal contempt under the act the right to a trial by jury. It also set penalties.
Additional Civil Rights Laws in the 1960s
24th Amendment to the Constitution
On January 23, 1964, the United States ratified the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting any poll tax in elections for federal officials. Use of poll taxes in state elections was banned in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required all voters to be treated equally, the 1965 Act banned outright the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50% of the non-white population had registered to vote, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
Fair Housing Act of 1968
The landmark Fair Housing Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson a week after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion in housing sales, rentals, or brokerage services.
Civil Rights Laws in the 1970s
The next decade saw the passage of additional federal legislation that expanded Americans' civil rights.
Education Amendments Act of 1972
Discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability.
The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of age.
Department of Education Organization Act of 1979
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) was created by the Department of Education Organization Act of 1979 to investigate alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The influence of the office has waxed and waned with the interest of various presidential administrations in civil rights enforcement.
Civil Rights Laws, 1980s to the Present
The Civil Rights Law of 1964 underwent many legal challenges. Among the first was Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States.
The motel, which served an interstate clientele, had long refused to rent rooms to African Americans. The motel owner argued that Congress did not have the authority under the U.S. Constitution to ban segregation in public accommodations.
The Supreme Court ruled that the commerce clause of the Constitution authorized Congress to enact this type of legislation.
In 1984, in the case of Grove City College v. Bell, a private, church-affiliated, co-educational institution sued to stop enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the U.S. government's request for an assurance of compliance with Title IX's prohibition of sex discrimination.
The Supreme Court ruled that Title IX applied only to the institution’s financial aid department, which received federal funds, and not to the school as a whole, which did not.
1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Grove City College v. Bell, Congress passed the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act to restore broad institution-wide applications of federal laws to discrimination in education on the basis of race, age, and handicap in federally assisted programs.
President Ronald Reagan vetoed the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act, but Congress overrode the veto and passed the legislation.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
In 2008, passage of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) expanded the population of Americans who could be protected under the law by making changes to the definition of disability.
Civil Rights Act of 1991
Bolstering earlier civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allowed damages for victims of intentional employment discrimination.
Recent Supreme Court Civil Rights Decisions
Thus far in the 21st century, the Supreme Court has made four landmark decisions that extend and protect the rights of the LGTBQ+ community.
Lawrence v. Texas, 2003
Originating in a police arrest of two men in Houston, Texas that led to a criminal conviction, this case struck down laws making same-sex intercourse a crime.
United States v. Windsor, 2013
The court struck down a federal law that denied benefits to married same-sex couples. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were married in Canada. When Spyer died, leaving her estate to Windsor, Windsor was denied a federal tax exemption for surviving spouses.
Obergefell v. Ohio, 2014
The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Fourteen same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners were deceased filed suit claiming that denying them the right to marry violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, 2020
On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The ruling came on three cases:
- Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia
- Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda
- Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC
In the first, Bobstock joined a gay softball league and was then fired from his job at a government program helping neglected and abused children. In the second case, Zarda, a sky-diving instructor, said he was fired because he was gay. In the third, a woman who disclosed that she was transgender and planned to start wearing women’s clothing at work was fired from a funeral home.
Where to File a Complaint
A number of different federal agencies are empowered to address violations of civil rights laws in their jurisdictions.
- Office for Civil Rights: Complaints about educational institutions
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): Complaints about discrimination in employment
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Complaints about healthcare providers, human services agencies, or other programs conducted by HHS
- U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division: Mistreatment by law enforcement (including while incarcerated) and victims of hate crimes or human trafficking; Americans With Disability Act complaints
- Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs: Complaints about employers doing business with the U.S. government
Effects and Limits of Civil Rights Law
Civil rights laws have resulted in substantial gains for equal treatment in many areas of American life. They have not, however, managed to even the playing field of opportunity.
Racism—the belief in the inferiority or superiority of a particular race (which was used to justify slavery) retains its hold. Systemic racism refers to the system of laws, regulations, and societal arrangements that keep many people of color in poverty and boost opportunities for White people.
Illegal but widespread housing discrimination forces many to live in poor, higher-crime neighborhoods. Police violence kills hundreds of African Americans every year, and discriminatory arrests and sentences have resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.
Low voter turnout leads to a lack of representation and the underfunding of schools and civic projects in poor and minority areas. Poor education and job discrimination limit opportunities and income.
Lack of healthcare leads to high disease rates and lower life expectancy. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a higher toll on U.S. Black, Latinx, and Native American communities.
Poverty, unemployment, voting rights, access to healthcare, and quality education remain the most important issues for civil rights.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Do?
Broadly speaking, it prohibited discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex in voting, workplaces, places of education, housing, and public accommodations. It has been followed up by additional legislation to better define and enforce its 11 sections, or titles.
Who Was Behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
Countless people, including those who suffered and those who tried to help them, are the force behind the act. The renowned civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed a new act could be a second Emancipation Proclamation. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy publicly called for the creation and passage of a new civil rights bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson is given credit for its passage in 1964.
Did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Deal With Voters' Rights?
Yes. It asserted that all voters were to be treated equally, without discrimination. However, more needed to be done on this front. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of literacy tests that had been used to keep so many minorities from casting their ballots.
The Bottom Line
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 held the promise of a nation endeavoring to free itself from discrimination and segregation in diverse areas of society such as voting, public education, employment, and public accommodations. Its 11 titles addressed the unequal treatment of individuals based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex.
However, despite the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation, the nation has more work to do to achieve its goals of equality and opportunity for all of its citizens.